Humanitarian Issues: Integrating peacekeeping and humanitarian work – how to make it work?

10 January, 2012
18 July 2008: Residents carry away their food supplies from a distribution centre supervised by the members of the Brazilian battalion of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The government of Mexico has donated 20 tonnes of food supplies for distribution throughout the country. Credit: Jean Rabel
18 July 2008: Residents carry away their food supplies from a distribution centre supervised by the members of the Brazilian battalion of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The government of Mexico has donated 20 tonnes of food supplies for distribution throughout the country. Credit: Jean Rabel

In December 2011, Al Shabaab released a press release stipulating that “the United Nations has… confirmed its full commitment to supporting the Kenyan invasion of Somalia by funding Kenyan operations now under AMISOM…”

“[Therefore,] we do not recognize the United Nations, or any of its institutions and affiliates, as legitimate authorities to regulate or govern the affairs of our nation.”

In a country where 4 million people are still suffering from conflict and famine, the announcement dealt a worrying blow to aid workers’ efforts to save lives.

As such, it was a striking demonstration of the potential complications of conflating the work done by UN humanitarian agencies with that done by other UN or international organizations – such as political or peacekeeping missions.

The mandate of aid organizations is to deliver aid to people in need whoever and wherever they are, in a neutral, independent and impartial manner.

In practice, however, they must often work side by side with UN peacekeepers or political officers - and explaining their different mandate can be a major challenge.

Avoiding conflation between the UN’s diverse mandates is particularly difficult in situations of ongoing conflict, and where the UN pursues a policy of structural integration.

Integration is a UN policy to ensure organizations’ coherent and coordinated action to enable an effective response for the people we serve.

In situations of structural integration, a single UN official wears three hats at the same time: as the UN’s highest-ranking humanitarian representative (Humanitarian Coordinator), its chief development official (Resident Coordinator), and deputy head of the peacekeeping or political mission (Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General).

This is currently the case in 11 of the 18 integrated presences where there is a peacekeeping or political mission. While this approach makes sense on many levels, it also poses significant challenges.

A study released in December by OCHA, DPKO and DPA -  the UN’s lead entities for humanitarian, peacekeeping and political affairs -  assessed the risks and opportunities of UN integration in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

It found both positive and negative effects on operations. It also revealed that integration remains a polarizing issue amongst peacekeeping, political and humanitarian organizations.

Peacekeepers focus on the positive aspects of integration, especially in post-conflict countries. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for example, the head of the political mission and the Humanitarian Coordinator have complemented each other’s advocacy efforts, by respectively calling on the government and the non-state armed group to gain humanitarian access to deliver aid to people in need. But many NGOs, and some UN aid workers, claim that integration subjugates humanitarian prerogatives to broader political goals.

To avoid these difficulties, the study calls on humanitarian organizations to make more of the opportunities presented by integrated missions, while minimizing their risks.

Opportunities include sharing planes and vehicles, as well as more shared analysis of the situation. Risks include greater insecurity. To avoid perceptions that humanitarian workers are not independent, aid workers should only use mission assets, especially armed escorts, as a last resort. Emphasis should be placed on initiatives that make humanitarian organizations be accepted by the people, starting from sensitization efforts to explain the different activities and objectives of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers.

“Integration is a UN-mandated policy. Withdrawing from (it) is not an option. We believe in its intended aim of greater strategic coherence,” said Valerie Amos, Emergency Relief Coordinator, at the New York launch of the study.

“At the same time, we cannot allow integration to impede the effective provision of humanitarian assistance to people in need.”

More>>  Integration  -  UN Integration and Humanitarian Space (an Independent Study commissioned by UN Integration Steering Group)